Before the American victory at Yorktown came resounding defeat at Charleston. George Daughan’sIf By Sea: The Forging of the American Navy—From the Revolution to the War of 1812 tells the story of the early years of the American navy. The following excerpt examines Abraham Whipple’s command of the Continental Navy at Charleston in 1780. Daughan attributes Whipple’s failure to his inexperience commanding a fleet as well as bad judgment. Essentialy the nascent Navy failed.
When General Clinton in New York had been informed of d’Estaing’s appearance, he feared an attack on Manhattan. Now he was pleased that the French fleet was aiming instead at Savannah. But after that, what? Clinton prepared by withdrawing his troops from Kings Ferry on October 7 and from Newport a few days later, bringing his army in Manhattan up to 25,000.
He was greatly relieved when d’Estaing sailed home. The victory at Savannah could now be followed by an attack on Charleston, just as the king had ordered. Clinton wrote to Eden, “I think this is the greatest event that has happened the whole war.” With the number of troops he had in Manhattan, Clinton could leave a substantial force to protect it from Washington and attack Charleston at the same time. By the end of December, he was ready.
Leaving General Knyphausen in command in New York, Clinton boarded his personal warship on Christmas Day, joining the rest of the fleet under Admiral Arbuthnot at Sandy Hook. The winter was one of the coldest on record. Seven troop transports had already been damaged by floating ice. The following day Clinton went to sea with 8,500 freezing soldiers, their horses and equipage.
His gigantic fleet of 106 ships included five battleships and seven frigates. The first of a series of potent winter storms struck the very next day. Savannah was the rendezvous point, and normally it took ten days to reach there from New York. Instead it took Clinton and Arbuthnot five weeks. The battered fleet was unable to regroup off Tybee Island at the mouth of the Savannah River until January 30, 1780, and not until February 11 did Clinton enter North Edisto inlet and land on Johns Island,30 miles south of Charleston.
After Clinton disembarked on Johns Island, Admiral Arbuthnot began a blockade of Charleston harbor, stationing his warships outside the bar. Clinton then dallied before seizing Stono Ferry, which connected Johns Island to James Island. On March 6 he took Fort Johnson on James Island, and the next day he crossed over to the mainland. But exercising his usual caution, he did not cross the Ashley River onto Charleston’s peninsula until the 29th.
Clinton’s snail’s pace was no help to the patriots. Even though General Prevost’s maneuvers earlier should have ignited a burst of energy to improve their land defenses, Charlestonians had neglected them. They only began to tend to them when they saw Clinton, and by that time it was too late. The Continental Navy, however, was on the scene and ready to help. Having gotten wind of Clinton’s plan to attack Charleston months before he left New York, the Marine Committee ordered Commodore Abraham Whipple of Rhode Island there with a powerful fleet.
Whipple left Nancasket Roads off Boston on November 23 with the Continental frigates Boston of 24 guns, the 28-gun Providence, the 28-gun Queen of France, and John Paul Jones’s old sloop-of-war, the 18-gun Ranger. When he arrived in Charleston on December 23, 1779, Whipple found the Bricole, 44, the Truite, 26, the General Moultrie, 20, the Notre Dame, 16, the L’Aventure, 26, and the polacre, Zephyr, 18, of the South Carolina navy. Whipple’s force might have been even larger, but three French frigates that had planned to winter in Charleston left when they received word that a British fleet was coming.
Before Whipple arrived in Charleston, the failed Marine Committee of Congress had been replaced by the five-member Board of Admiralty in 1779. The new administrative body was composed of two members of Congress and three commissioners. But it kept making the same old mistakes, and the navy continued to deteriorate.
Appointing Commodore Whipple to command the fleet at Charleston was yet another example of the inability to position the best leaders where they were most needed. For the first time, the Continental fleet was being tested in a major battle. Commodore Whipple had never commanded such a force or participated in a fleet action. Nor had he ever shown any stomach for it. He had no conception of how to deploy his forces and gave no thought to challenging Clinton, nor to disputing Arbuthnot’s crossing of the bar when the British fleet would be most vulnerable. He might have organized swarms of gunboats and whaleboats to challenge Arbuthnot at that point, but he did not.
Instead, on February 27, Whipple informed General Benjamin Lincoln, who had overall command of Charleston, that he was unable to oppose Arbuthnot as his warships crossed the notoriously difficult bar because there was no satisfactory anchorage for the patriot fleet. Whipple argued that his ships could best be employed by coordinating with Fort Moultrie on Sullivan’s Island to create a crossfire that would attack the British fleet as it entered the harbor.
On March 14 Colonel John Laurens, Washington’s aide on the scene, wrote his estimate of the situation to the commander-in-chief. “The Commodore and all his officers renounce the idea of defending the passage over the bar. They declare it impracticable for the frigates to lie in a proper position for that purpose. The government has neglected to provide floating batteries, which might have been stationed there. It has been agreed as the next best plan to form a line of battle to make a crossfire with Fort Moultrie. As it would be the enemies policy, with a leading wind and tide, to pass the fire of the fort and run aboard of our ships, the Commodore is contriving an obstruction which he thinks will obstruct their progress and allow time for the full effect of our fire.”
“The impracticality of defending the bar, in the first instance appears to me a great diminution of our means of defense…. The Commodore has destroyed one set of the enemy’s buoys. I hope he will cut away such as may have been since put down, and order the galleys to give all possible annoyance to the enemy’s ships in the act of entering.”
Actually, when the time came to fight, Whipple not only failed to dispute Arbuthnot’s entrance over the bar but put up no defense at all. That allowed Arbuthnot to approach the harbor entrance. Then, as the British fleet prepared to engage, Whipple ran. In his report to the Admiralty, Arbuthnot wrote, “[After seeing to the landing of the army], preparations were next made for passing the squadron over the Charleston bar, where at high water spring tides there is only 19 feet of water. The guns, provisions, and water were taken out of the Renown, Roebuck and Romulus to lighten them. We lay in that situation on the open coast in the winter season of the year, exposed to the insults of the enemy for sixteen days, before an opportunity offered of going into the harbor, which was effected without any accident on the 20th of March, notwithstanding the enemy’s galleys continually attempted to prevent our boats from sounding the channel… The enemy naval force… made an appearance of disputing the passage up the river at the narrow pass between Sullivan’s Island and the Middle Ground, having moored their ships and galleys in a position to make a raking fire as we approached Fort Moultrie, but on the squadron arriving near the bar and anchoring on the inside, they abandoned that idea, retired to the town and changed their plan of defense.”
Arbuthnot brought only nine warships and three transports into the harbor. He left his large battleships outside and never considered floating them over the bar, even at high spring tide. There were only four left now since Defiance had been lost to the weather. Arbuthnot worried that a large French fleet might appear at any moment, as had happened the previous two years, and overpower his relatively small squadron. But, worried or not, he had to press on, and he made his way unopposed over the bar, past Fort Moultrie, and then into the harbor. One of the transports caught fire coming in and had to be destroyed, but other than that he made it in with no trouble.
Instead of fighting this by no means overwhelming force, Commodore Whipple withdrew his fleet up the Cooper River to the channel between the town and Shute’s Folly, an island, where he sank four patriot frigates and some merchant vessels as part of a log-and-chain obstruction strung across the river. Whipple stationed his remaining warships behind the barrier, but except for the Ranger and Queen of France, he removed all their guns and men to the town to strengthen its defenses.
After seeing Whipple retreat, the irascible, unpredictable Arbuthnot anchored in the upper harbor for the rest of the battle. He refused to cooperate with Clinton by attacking Whipple, removing the obstructions on the Cooper, and cutting off the American army’s last avenue of escape. Clinton urged the admiral to secure the Cooper River and thereby seal General Lincoln in the town, but Arbuthnot refused, saying it wasn’t safe for his frigates because of possible artillery fire from the land.
Clinton was furious, but he could not make Arbuthnot budge and had to devise other means of trapping Lincoln. On April 14 Clinton sent Tarleton’s Legion and Major Patrick Ferguson’s Tory volunteer riflemen, a total of 1,500 men, to seize control of the far side of the river. Tarleton moved swiftly, surprising patriot General Isaac Huger at Monck’s Corners and defeating him. That opened the way for Clinton to close off Lincoln’s last way out of Charleston.
General Lachlan McIntosh, an important political figure in Georgia whom Washington had sent south to aid Lincoln, had urged him to evacuate over the Cooper when he still had the chance, but, typically, Lincoln hesitated until it was too late.
Meanwhile, Clinton took his time approaching Charleston, drawing additional men from New York and Georgia until his army had swollen to 10.000. His methodical advance was slowed because he insisted on establishing secure posts as he moved forward, protecting his line of retreat to the fleet, as Howe had always done.
Pressured by Congress and nearly all of Charleston’s patriot leadership, including Governor Rutledge, Christopher Gadsden, and Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, General Lincoln decided to remain in the city with his entire army of 5,500 and defend the Charleston peninsula to the last, even though he was outnumbered by two to one. The only patriot leader to urge retreat was General McIntosh. Lincoln himself believed that Charleston could be held with a force half the size of Clinton’s. With no way to evacuate, he was risking the patriots’ entire Southern Army.
On April 13 Clinton began an intense bombardment of the town from lines that stretched across the peninsula from the Ashley to the Cooper River. His approach was conventional and careful, as had been his entire operation. By early May, Lincoln’s outer defenses collapsed, and on the 6th, Fort Moultrie surrendered to a land party of British marines. On the 12th Lincoln surrendered his entire force, suffering the worst patriot debacle of the war.
Commodore Whipple never got into the fight. If he had fought as he had originally proposed in cooperation with Fort Moultrie, where Colonel Pinkney had twenty guns, he might well have stopped Arbuthnot and changed the course of the battle. Arbuthnot’s small fleet never saw action either. The two naval commanders had merely observed.
Every vessel in Commodore Whipple’s fleet was either destroyed or captured. He was taken prisoner, as were Lincoln, Gadsden, Pinkney, and McIntosh. The Providence 28, Queen of France 28, Boston 24, Ranger 18, and a few smaller vessels fell into enemy hands. The Providence, Boston and Ranger were eventually taken into the Royal Navy. All that now remained of the Continental Navy were the 32-gun Alliance, the 32-gun Hague (formerly the Deane), the 32-gun Confederacy, the 28-gun Trumbull, and a ship or two bought or borrowed in Europe. Because no funds were available, Congress did not attempt to add to this number, and its naval reliance on France became total. Whipple’s bad judgment and cowardice had, to all intents and purposes, ruined what was left of the Continental Navy.
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